Tips for Freelancers

Etiquette rules of the road for the brave new gig economy world

If it seems lately that everyone you know has a “side hustle” or freelance work, that’s because more than a fourth of the population is in some way a member of the gig economy.

According to Spera, a digital office platform for independent workers, nearly 54 million Americans participated in independent work in 2015. Those numbers are expected to rise to about half the population by 2020, according to

With so many of us taking on outside projects or working as full-time contractors, it can’t hurt to review a few basics for working with clients, both for those gigging outside of their day job and the people who have made it their full-time occupation.

First impressions

When meeting with clients, consider your audience and dress accordingly for face-to-face meetings. While it might be acceptable to dress casually for a meeting with a technology industry client at a company known for its dress-down atmosphere, showing up in jeans and a concert T-shirt with the CEO of a finance corporation is not advisable. Do your homework and if the company culture is traditional, wear a suit or similar business attire. This holds true whether you are meeting at their offices or off-site.

Office Space

For a lot of freelancers, coffee shops, bars and restaurants replace a traditional office. When meeting clients, plan to pay for their order. You are wooing them, not the other way around. If the client offers to pay, it’s fine to say, “Thank you, that’s very generous. Are you sure?” Protesting once is fine, but don’t turn it into a back-and-forth. Also, opt for quiet, low-key settings. Be mindful of the establishment’s staff, too. Don’t take up the table for extended periods, otherwise you are interrupting their business to conduct yours. Full-time freelancers with a more robust budget can consider membership in a co-working space. In addition to a place to hang your laptop during business hours, most co-working spaces have meeting rooms. Day rates are also often available.

Time is Money

As a contractor, it’s your job to make your client’s work easier and to save them time. Pick the best form of communication for the situation. If something can be accomplished via email or with a quick phone call, don’t schedule an in-person meeting. When you do book a phone conversation, Skype session or face-to-face meeting, always ask your client how much time is available on their end, set a beginning and end time, and stick to it.

Face Time

With in-person meetings, be clear about the agenda — especially when addressing areas of frustration or concern. The worst thing you can do is ambush the client with an unexpected problem. Extend your client the courtesy and respect of informing them about the issue so they can give thought to the situation and possible solutions.

Under Pressure

The adage “Under promise and over deliver” should be every freelancer’s credo. As an outside contractor, you more than anyone are replaceable. Communicate as problems and setbacks arise and offer bad news wrapped in solutions. Whenever possible, turn work in early rather than late and offer regular progress reports. Finally, be realistic about timelines and where your client falls in your workload. If you have five projects ahead of them, be honest about it. Sometimes you will simply have to turn work down because the client’s timeline is too short. That’s OK. Ask them to keep you in mind for future projects and, if you know a reliable peer who would be a good fit, recommend a substitute. The client will appreciate your candor and the help in finding a replacement, and you will create a lot of good karma for yourself and your business.

Finally, be sure to keep freelance work off of your day job employer’s time. Take calls and meetings during lunch and other breaks, after hours, and on weekends, and don’t use company equipment for your work. Let clients know when you typically respond and hold “office hours” for meetings. Honesty and ethical conduct are qualities prized by both full-time employers and those hiring freelancers. 

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to


Categories: The Magazine